Times Past

Dan Krieger: Sotos were among Cambria’s foremost citizens

The Soto family gathers in 1906 at the Dry Bones Homestead.
The Soto family gathers in 1906 at the Dry Bones Homestead.

Ygnacio Soto’s journey began in hot and dry Sinaloa, Mexico. Inequitable distribution of land and wealth plagued the countryside then as it does now. The head of a family could look forward only to another day of backbreaking work with little to show for the effort.

In the early spring of 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza offered some hope to ablebodied young men who could both work and fight. They would be expected to travel a distance of nearly 800 miles over rugged roads with their families to the Spanish Presidio of San Ignacio de Tubac, now in Arizona, just north of the border with Sonora.

From that outpost, the Anza Expedition would travel 1,500 miles over only recently and partially mapped territory that included some of the harshest terrain in North America.

They would settle in the valleys near San Francisco Bay, defending Spain’s remote outpost of empire from possible Russian and English intruders.

We know a great deal about Ygnacio de Soto, who died in Santa Clara, California, Feb. 23, 1807. His wife, María Barbara Espinosa de Lugo, was a sister of the soldier Francisco de Lugo, whose daughter, María Antonia, became the mother of General Mariano Vallejo. The first Spanish child born in San Francisco was their son Francisco José de los Dolores Soto, born in 1776. He became one of Spain’s most famous Indian fighters.

The couple had fourteen children born in California. Their descendants were granted ten ranchos with rich, well-watered lands in Northern California by the government of Mexico. Several of these ranchos were in or near the Jolon Valley in Southern Monterey County surrounding Mission San Antonio.

A fourth-generation descendant , “General” Herculeano Soto, stepped on a sharp fishbone at the age of nine and blood poisoning developed. He had to have his leg amputated. That didn’t keep him from getting around. In 1846, at the age of fourteen, sitting on a rooftop, he witnessed Capt. John C. Fremont carrying the American flag through Monterey.

Sometime between 1855 and 1860, Herculeano joined his cousin Bernardino in Green Valley south of Cambria. Bernardino was a partner with San Francisco lawyer Domingo Pujol, who once held title to much of the land in present-day Cambria and the Florinda Mine, one of the earliest cinnabar operations in the Santa Lucia Mountains. He was later a partner with Samuel Green, James Van Ness (Van Ness Street in San Francisco) and George Hearst in the “Star of the West” silver, gold and copper mine.

Herculeano didn’t like Yankees and preferred to speak only Spanish. He did not get on as well as his cousin with the Yankee interlopers. George Hearst may have seized his Green Valley holdings and Faxon Dean Atherton took the Jolon Valley land through Atherton’s well-known legal chicanery.

Confronted with the loss of family lands, some of the Californios became outlaws like the Sotos’ cousin Tiburcio Vasquez. The Sotos chose another course and became among the foremost citizens of Cambria.

Robert Soto has just completed a narrative of his family’s 235-year residence in our state, titled “An Old California Family: The Sotos of Cambria.” The Cambria Historical Society is holding a “members only” signing on December 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. The public book signing will be Sunday, December 11, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Bianchini House, 2251 Center Street in downtown Cambria.

Robert tells it all, including a famous encounter with Tiburcio Vasquez in San Luis Obispo.